Democrats held onto former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' Arizona House seat when voters picked one of her aides to succeed her, fending off a special-election challenge Tuesday that they said presages bigger wins in November.
Democrat Ron Barber easily topped Republican Jesse Kelly in a race in which both sides tested their national arguments — in the case of Republicans an anti-President Obama message and for Democrats an attack on Republicans' budget-cutting plans.
"This is a sign of things to come this November," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman and a friend of Ms. Giffords. She said presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney should learn from the results. "Voters made it crystal clear that they don't want any more tax breaks for large corporations and millionaires and billionaires paid for with cuts in their Social Security and Medicare."
National and state Democrats had pleaded with voters to keep them in power in what they called "Gabby's seat" — the southeastern Arizona district the former congresswoman gave up in January, a little more than a year after she was severely wounded during a shooting at an outdoor town hall meeting she was hosting in January 2011. Mr. Barber was wounded in the attack.
With all precincts reporting, Mr. Barber won 52 percent of the vote to Mr. Kelly's 45 percent. A Green Party candidate collected another 2 percent. For Democrats, that's a major improvement over 2010, when Mr. Kelly nearly defeated Ms. Giffords.
Tuesday's result was so stunning that Mr. Kelly, 30, said he was "reflecting on the future" — a signal, according to the Associated Press, that he might not seek a rematch against Mr. Barber this November.
Republicans said the race wasn't a good test of national trends because of Ms. Giffords' circumstances.
For now, however, Mr. Barber's election gives Democrats a new figure to rally around just a week after the GOP found a champion in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who easily survived a recall election.
The Arizona race was the marquee matchup on a day that also saw primaries for congressional candidates in Virginia, Maine, Nevada and South Carolina.
Former Sen. George Allen won the Republican nomination in Virginia to try to recapture his seat. The man who beat him, Sen. Jim Webb, is retiring after one term, and Mr. Allen will instead face former Gov. Tim Kaine.
In Maine, Republican Charlie Summers topped five others in the GOP primary and Cynthia Dill won Democrats' primary for the state's open Senate seat. They will go up against former Gov. Angus King, an independent who is the front-runner to succeed retiring Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Republican.
Republicans say they think Mr. King has struck a backroom deal to support Democrats should he be elected, and they are hoping to try to divide Democratic voters in the state.
In Nevada, voters set up a match between Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, and Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Democrat, for the Senate seat to which Mr. Heller was appointed last year. And in North Dakota, Rep. Rick Berg, a Republican, won the primary to face Democrat Heidi Heitkamp for an open Senate seat.
In Arizona, Ms. Giffords had won the her House seat in 2006 after longtime Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe retired. She defended the seat in 2008 and 2010.
The weekend after she and the rest of her House colleagues were sworn in for the 112th Congress in January 2011, she was holding a town-hall gathering at a shopping center in Tucson when police say Jared Lee Laughner opened fire, killing six people and wounding Ms. Giffords and a dozen others.
Ms. Giffords was recovering slowly and made an emotional return to the House floor last summer but announced just before this year's State of the Union address that she would step down to focus more on her recovery. She hinted that her days in politics aren't over yet.
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